The term Naaseh Venishma – “we shall do, and we shall hear,” that famous line that the Jewish people exclaimed when asked if they would like to receive the Torah – is one that has captivated the thoughts and imagination of Jews throughout the millennia. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) expands upon the extraordinary philosophical and emotional implications it carries, and upon its everlasting consequences.

When God asked the nations of the world[1] if they would accept the Torah, the nations of the world asked: what is written in this Torah? Only once we know what is in it can we consider whether to accept it or not. In contrast, when God asked the Jewish people if they would accept it, not only did they accept it, but they said “Naaseh Venishma”, we will first do it and then we will hear what it says in it. The Talmud says that in reward for that faithful response, each Jew was crowned with two angelic crowns: one for agreeing to do – for Na’aseh, and one for agreeing to hear – for Nishma.

While saying Naaseh, agreeing to do what Hashem will tell them without knowing what that might be, seems extraordinary and deserving of reward, one can only wonder why they should receive reward for saying Nishma. After all, once they committed to doing everything that God said, hearing is the only natural and necessary follow-up!

Rabbi Zelig Epstein [2], the late Rosh Yeshiva of Sha’ar Hatorah and a close student ofRabbi Yerucham Levovitz of Mir, offers the following answer. Yes, once the Jewish people had accepted and committed themselves to keeping God’s commandments, they would have to find out what those commandments are. However, argues Rabbi Epstein, in addition to committing to learn the parts of the Torah that relate to what they need to observe, the Jewish people were making a far more profound commitment; the Jewish people were committing to studying Torah for the sake of studying Torah. When the Jewish people said Nishma, they were committing themselves to a lifelong pursuit of learning; they were committing themselves to learning the laws of the Torah regardless of whether that particular field of study is practically relevant to their challenges and their conduct. It is for this commitment – the commitment to learning regardless of practical applications – that the Jewish people were adorned with the second crown.

When we celebrate Shavuot as the “time we were given the Torah,”[3] we celebrate it as another milestone in our lifelong commitment to learning. We mark Shavuot as a festive time to remember our commitment to learning for the sake of learning; a commitment to engaging in the study of Torah because we value the One who gave the Torah and we value what He has to say. Chag Same’ach!

[1] See full version of this Midrash in the Sifri on Devarim, Parashat Vezot Habracha 343

[2] I had been privileged to study in the Yeshiva at the time Rabbi Epstein served as Rosh Yeshiva and heard this from him in one of his holiday related shiurim.

[3] While Shavuot is referred to in prayers as the “time of giving the Torah”, in scripture it only appears as an agricultural holiday which marks the ending of the counting of the Omer and bringing offerings from the new grain. Commentaries wonder about this disparity in understanding the nature of the holiday. For discussion see here here and here.

Published May 21, 2015 in the YU Lamdan